A number of news outlets claim the near collapse of the Oroville dam’s emergency spillway in California is a glimpse of what man-made global warming could bring.
“Oroville Is a Warning for California Dams, as Climate Change Adds Stress,” the New York Times reported. “Broken California Dam Is a Sign of Emergencies to Come,” reads an article published in Scientific American, adding that “[c]limate change is leading to more extreme rainfalls that can overwhelm infrastructure.”
Nearly 200,000 Californians were evacuated from their homes Sunday after part of the Oroville dam’s main spillway collapsed, in turn causing the dam’s emergency spillway to reach the limit of what it can handle.
Heavy rains this year overwhelmed Oroville, pushing the dam to capacity, and sparking concerns from environmentalists and reporters that global warming would bring more extreme rains that could damage infrastructure.
“Drought, climate change, and aging infrastructure combined to create a looming catastrophe that forced 188,000 Californians to evacuate,” reads an Atlantic subheadline.
Roger Bales, an engineering professor with the University of California, Merced, said global warming was to blame for California’s unusually wet winter.
“It doesn’t take much warming to change snowstorms into rainstorms,” Bales told The Guardian. “With a warmer climate, we get these winter storms, which dump rain rather than snow.”
Michael Dettinger, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, countered that while global warming may play a future role in rain storms, it probably hasn’t had much of an impact yet.
“California’s climate has always had the potential for a year like this,” he told The Guardian. “So far, except for how quickly [not how much] the precipitation has piled up, there is nothing record-breaking here.”
California has a history of abruptly switching from drought conditions to torrential rain. One weekend of rain storms in January, brought by an atmospheric river, basically ended California’s six-year, state-wide drought.
Despite this, precipitation around Oreville hasn’t trended upward much in the last century — only about 0.8 inches over the last century or so, according to federal climate data.
Oroville’s problem was a corroded main spillway, put under stress by heavy rains. Had workers caught the main spillway problems during the dam’s last inspection in July 2015, this may have been averted.
Oroville’s main spillway handled more water during heavy rains in the 1990s, but the dam was in better condition.
Officials say repairing the dam could cost as much as $200 million.
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